Wednesday, November 6, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1314: Marissa Nadler

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! I’m reviewing a little less frequently these days. The good news, I get to leave for work later and get home faster. The bad news is that it shaves about 30 minutes of listening time off of my overall commute. Never fear, I remain committed to the mission – Ithaca or bust!

Disc 1314 is… July
Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? What strange apparition is this? A spirit, come through the casement to fetch us all to hell?

Calm down, Logan. It’s just Marissa Nadler and some backlight.  

How I Came to Know It: I heard her new album and it led me through her back catalogue. This is one of the albums that caught my attention.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Marissa Nadler albums. I had five, but after reviewing it back at Disc 1284, I decided to part ways with both “Little Hells” and also the majority of critics that loved it. I preferred “July” and while I haven’t given my Marissa Nadler collection the attention necessary to rank it definitively, I am feeling optimistic overall. That optimism leads me to put “July” in at #3, above at least one other selection, but behind two others. I’m not sure which is which yet – I’ll need more time to get acquainted with the other records better before I decide.

Ratings: 3 stars

Some albums just suit certain seasons, and despite its title “July” felt a good match for late autumn. The music is like a clear November day which is cold in a way that tells you it’ll soon be even colder.

“July” is relatively late in Nadler’s career, and well into the turn toward ambient production she took in 2009 with “Little Hells”. At their core these are folk songs, but Nadler dresses them up with heavy reverb and the deep thud of bass and a bit of ghostly whistling when the mood moves her.

Over this she plays very simple strum patterns on acoustic guitar and sings with a breathy semi-whispered delivery. Her voice has a sing-song quality that Nadler introduces at times as well. Imagine being serenaded by Kate Bush’s ghost and you’ll have an approximation. I felt like I was hearing songs whispered to me by spirits when I ventured into an old barn at the back of the property against my better judgment.

The album generates a wall of atmospheric sound and lets you sink into it. As an active listener I kept resisting the descent into reverie, intent on paying attention to what she was doing lyrically or vocally, but it was a struggle. It is music that is built to let your mind wander.

When I did focus, I was impressed with Nadler’s storytelling ability. Many of the songs on “July” are sad tales by damaged people not afraid to explore both their own frailties, and how those frailties translate into fragmented relationships. “Firecrackers” features all of what makes the record great. Nadler’s guitar strum is soft and somber, and her vocals high and sweet as she paints pictures like:

“I saw your face everywhere I looked, you sat across from me
Baby I'm a ghost when you're away
I told you all about my days, you told me where you lived
And we have drunk all our summers away”

Like a lot of songs on “July” the picture is painted by floating in the distance between two people, as much as the people themselves. Nadler is a master of negative space and unexpected focus. On “I’ve Got Your Name” she trades guitar strum for sparse piano and light chatter of an intermittent chorus. When she sings lines like:

“Changed in a rest stop into my dress
Be sure not to touch the floor
I've done that kind of thing before”

It’s the vastness of the story that isn’t told that draws you in, listening for more clues to what’s causing all that God-damned longing in her voice. Her characters are raw and real, but never boisterous – winning you over with their quietness and frailty.

As with “Little Hells” the songs have a uniformity that sometimes makes it hard for them to stand out, particularly given they put you in a constant state of absentmindedness. For whatever reason, it bothered me less this time around.

In fact, when I reviewed “Little Hells” I took two of Nadler’s records off my “to get” list thinking the magic was gone. “July” made me put them both back on. I won’t call it a match made in heaven, but it is definitely a date with a ghost that hopes to get there one day.

Best tracks: Firecrackers, I’ve Got Your Name, Desire, Holiday In

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